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The Unsung Heart of Black America:
A Middle Class Church at Mid-century

Dona Irvin's first book, published in 1992, is "The Unsung Heart of Black America: A Middle Class Church at Mid-century." It is a history of Oakland's Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in the 1950s and '60s, a socially conscious congregation dedicated to improving things such as civil rights, education, health care and housing.

Forty members of the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in post-World War II California struggled to make their world a better place through political campaigns, a tutorial program for students, and a counseling program wherein professionals offered advice and service to less-fortunate members of the community.

Most people are familiar with such African-Americans as Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, or Martin Luther King, Jr., at one end of the spectrum, and with sharecroppers, lynch victims, or underprivileged families at the other. Somewhere between the two is the unsung middle class that quietly makes a difference in the quality of life for individual communities and for all black Americans. In The Unsung Heart of Black America, Dona Irvin gives voice to this uncelebrated multitude with biographical glimpses into the lives of forty members of the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in the post-World War II San Francisco Bay area. Strengthened by the bond of the church, these people struggled to make their world a better place through political campaigns, a tutorial program for public school students, and a counseling program wherein professionals offered service to less-fortunate members of the community. The forty people profiled here show a strongly developed sense of mission and a willingness to implement change. The group includes the first black mayor of a California city, the head of a social services department in a California county, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, and a woman who was superintendent of public schools in Oakland and Chicago. The experiences of the Downs community provide emphatic evidence of the importance of the black church in our society. The Unsung Heart of Black America shows the ambitions, successes, and frustrations of the forty members of Downs church as they strived to make a substantial contribution to the quality of American life.

The Unsung Heart of Black America:
A Middle Class Church at Mid-century

Reviewed by Gregory Stephens
From the San Francisco Chronicle August 9, 1992

“The Unsung Heart of Black America” is local history with national importance. Dona Irvin’s profile of 40 “doers” at a black church in Oakland is meant to demonstrate the resources of the black middle class. The members of the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church congregation on whom she focuses have had “a far-reaching impact upon the total African-American community,” Irvin writes, “in spite of their origin at a local church setting.”

Too often we are fed images of black Americans “at opposite ends of the spectrum,” Irvin observes. Endless reports describe black America’s underside: welfare mothers, drug addicts, the legacy of “Strange Fruit” (lynchings) on Southern trees. On the other hand,“black culture heroes”, the Bill Cosbys and Martin Luther Kings, have also become ubiquitous images meant to assure us that black America is entering and transforming the American “mainstream.”

But “somewhere between the famous and the persecuted,” Irvin writes, lies an “unnoticed multitude who are as much a part of black America as those whose actions are widely renowned.” It is in this “unsung heart”, Irvin believes, that the real transformative potential of the black community resides. The Downs Church in Oakland serves as a good case study of the growing influence of the black middle class, Irvin believes. First, Downs members have wielded considerable political, cultural, and spiritual influence—both in the Bay Area and nationally—by inspiring a series of “first blacks”:mayors, congressmen, school superintendents, and some of the most influential, best educated and most prosperous African Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Second, Downs was essentially a product of the migration of Southern blacks in the World War II era. Originally the Golden Gate Methodist Church which served an all-white neighborhood, Downs was established in 1948 when the enormous influx of African Americans entering the East bay transformed the census reports, which showed the black population of Alameda County jumping from 12,335 in the 1940 to 203,612 in 1985.

Finally, Downs members lived out a conflict between the ideals of integration and black self-reliance in a way that often reflects how this debate has played out on the national stage. As Irvin shows, members of the “First Generation” at Downs grew up in an era of self-supporting black institutions: The father of member Walter Morris, for example, co-founded the first public school in Alabama. Similarly, Ruth Love’s grandfather started the first school for black students in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1907.

The children of these pioneers fought for integration, yet as Irvin takes us through the mini-biographies of 40 Downs members, we begin to understand why many have had second thoughts about integration as a long-term strategy and are encouraging their children to attend black colleges. Indeed, the influence of black nationalism can be seen in the political ideology of several members. Wesley Jones, former director of public welfare in Santa Clara County, is one of several Downs members affiliated with the Black Social Workers Organization who are fighting against interracial adoptions. At the same time, Downs served as a crossroads for inter ethnic cooperation: Roy Nichols, the charismatic pastor who guided Downs during the period of the study, co-founded the South Berkeley Community Church, “one of the first interracial churches in the country,” Irvin writes. Gordon Baranco, whose legal career began with an appointment as a municipal judge by former Governor Jerry Brown, is married to Chinese American, Barbara, and servers on the board of the Chinese Community Council in Oakland’s Chinatown.

Irvin’s study reveals how values on integration have changes. Ruby Osborne, whose family moved from Mississippi to Denver before going west to Oakland, discovered that the west was not as racially evolved as she and her family had imagined. She points out that schools in Denver, for instance, had “separate services and senior proms for the African American graduates.” Ironically, separate services and not considered a point of pride for blacks in California.

The Downs congregation was named after Karl Downs, a black minister who helped integrate the Methodist Church. In 1937 Karl Downs, denied a room at a Chicago hotel, where his white colleagues “did not protest but instead suggested that he find another place to stay,” wrote a piece in Time Magazine titled, “Did My Church Desert Me?” The article prompted the Methodist Church to “examine its policies and refuse to meet in any hotel that would not accommodate all people.” Downs members have continued this tradition and have made a “substantial contribution to the quality of American life,”writes Irvin.

It is not easy to follow the lives of 40 people from across the country, but Irvin weaves the intersecting stories together skillfully, and soon they begin to take almost visible form. Like a quilt woven by church members, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

“The Unsung Heart of Black America” also makes a good case for community-based institutions as carriers of cultural values. During this era of familial and societal breakdown, its lessons are worth remembering.

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